peteg's blog - noise - books - 2009 02 07 Theroux DarkStarSafari

Paul Theroux: Dark Star Safari

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Gonk recommended this book to me ages ago, and I ended up buying a Penguin classic-cover edition on the strength of that, the price, the account of crossing Lake Victoria I heard on Radio National, and the first page, where the author promises to cut through the televised myth of Africa-the-poor. To an extent he does.

The story is a sprawling, slightly flabby account of Theroux's return-to-Africa around 2001, an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town via some of the places he spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s. There's a solid focus on the individuals he met that time and this, the wildlife and the flora. Politicking gets some time in the sun but lacks sufficient background for non-Africophiles to really get to grips with.

Theroux clearly has an intense dislike of the kind of tourism Africa was once famous for — Hemingway-esque big game hunting — and the "agents of virtue", of which he was once one. I guess he wants to drive a wedge between those who attempted to provide a secular education (or similar, i.e. a worthy long term investment in the people, not infrastructure) and those who try to save souls or build monuments to aid agencies. He argues strongly that Africa has not developed, but is as bereft as anyone and everyone for what to try next. Less short-termism? More projects where Africans provide the labour and materials? A return to subsistence?

Theroux got kicked out of the Peace Corps, and you can read a great account of those days here. I think this book makes it quite clear that he benefited more from his experience than Malawi did, and that it could never have been any other way.